Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Issue - the Fearful Child Behind the 'Truant': News

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Issue - the Fearful Child Behind the 'Truant': News

Article excerpt

When a student misses lessons, it may signal deep-seated troubles that need care and attention, not scepticism and punishment.

It is all too easy to be cynical when it comes to teenagers. We treat them with the distrust and hostility we usually reserve for politicians and their ilk.

You're late because the bus broke down? But of course, and I bet you had to catch a flying pig the rest of the way. You have to sit out geography because you're feeling unwell? What a shame; this has nothing to do with the fact that this is the only lesson you're failing, I'm sure ...

Sometimes the cynicism is well founded. However, on other occasions, what seems unbelievable can be true.

A medical condition called "school refusal" falls into the latter bracket. Any child unwilling to attend school is likely to be labelled a truant, but they may actually be suffering from this genuine illness. The condition renders a student so anxious about school that they cannot physically bring themselves to go. It affects about 2 per cent of school- age children, although some estimate that the figure could be as high as 5 per cent.

The acute anxiety at the root of the problem can stem from several sources, including social fears, emotional or health problems and bullying. Symptoms include frequent complaints about attending school, tardiness and unexplained absences.

These symptoms are, of course, similar to the behaviour of someone playing truant, so identifying genuine cases of school refusal is difficult.

Assessment is in any case a complex matter. As Mary B Wimmer points out in a paper for the US National Association of School Psychologists, because school refusal may be the result of many factors, assessment has to include extensive sources of information, ranging from interviews with the child to questionnaires for teachers, parents and other students, as well as academic, attendance and behaviour reports.

This takes time and schools are often left for a long period with little guidance on how to proceed. So do you assume that every student is a potential truant? Or that they are suffering from school refusal?

Having supported children with the condition, I can say with some confidence that you will spot when the anxiety is genuine. I have witnessed young people crying, kicking and screaming; withdrawing from those around them and showing reluctance to speak or engage; and suffering from physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and nausea.

Of course, these symptoms can be faked. But if you have even the smallest suspicion that the problem is genuine then you have to support the student until you have medical proof either way. These tips will help you to do that. …

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